Like business communities around the world, the Eastside’s economic state is becoming increasingly undermined by coronavirus-related impacts. Many local businesses in the area are struggling to cope as precautionary measures become more stringent.
Representatives from local chambers of commerce spoke to the Reporter on trends they are seeing and the concerns they are hearing from local business owners. Though the states of individual business communities vary, uncertainty about the future — and sudden, major declines in day-to-day operations — is a through line.
Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Laurie Givan made an effort to focus on the positive while speaking with the Reporter, but noted that she “didn’t want to pretend it’s nothing,” either.
She added, “Everything just keeps unfolding literally by the hour. It’s the craziest thing. Everybody is doing the best they can to maintain their regular life, but they have to be careful.”
Givan said that businesses in the Mercer Island area have been as reactive as possible — it’s been hard, she said, to always be proactive as precautionary measures continue to be fluid — and making sure to ensure that their spaces are sanitary. The chamber, on its website, also has added links to its website offering guidance to businesses. Givan said that for now, business owners are “all feeling the pinch.”
“The longer this goes on, the more we will see ramifications,” Givan said.
Kirkland, often billed as the epicenter of the coronavirus of the outbreak due to myriad cases at the Life Care Center nursing home, is seeing significant effects, chamber executive director Samantha St. John confirmed.
The chamber has canceled or postponed all of its March events. While many Eastside chambers reported not being too adversely affected themselves due to the outbreak as of the Reporter’s deadline, St. John said that it has “presented quite a challenge for [them] just organizationally,” as the Kirkland chamber relies heavily on public events.
St. John said that since Kirkland has been characterized as the virus’s epicenter, the local economy is being possibly more negatively impacted by coronavirus precautions than others. Many local business communities are seeing a noticeable decrease in customers — with some businesses reporting going full days without anyone walking through the door.
St. John believes it might be worse for the city.
“People are not really coming to Kirkland,” St. John said. “Our hotels had almost full cancellations on all of their rooms and their meetings and conferences. And our local shops and local restaurants — I mean, we’re a town that thrives on small business, and they don’t have a national portfolio to absorb these types of losses. We’re feeling it very acutely here in Kirkland.”
St. John said that to try to combat the lack of traffic, the chamber is campaigning for community feedback on how they would be most willing to support local businesses from their home, whether it be through upped website purchases, new meal-delivery service options and more.
Since the Reporter spoke with St. John on March 11, Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered all bars and restaurants to stop all in-person dining, though takeout and delivery options are still allowed.
“I know that the community doesn’t want to see their beloved, small businesses go away,” St. John said.
St. John said that the chamber is also trying to raise money for a large-scale, shopping/“eat local” event to help salvage the damage done by the coronavirus. But precautions are, at the moment, complicating this plan.
“We can’t, exactly, tell people to physically go into places against what Public Health is saying,” St. John said. “We’re trying to convey that message to continue to support the businesses as they’re comfortable and able.”
She added, “We definitely don’t want to see anyone lose their business over something that was no fault of their own.”
Brittany Caldwell, who is the executive director of the Bothell-Kenmore Chamber, said that, fortunately, the state of the chamber itself hasn’t been too detrimentally affected as a result of the coronavirus.
“This time of year is not our busiest, so we’ve been able to offer flexibility without incredible impact,” Caldwell said.
She noted, though, that there have still been a few event cancellations, such as the Kenmore city manager’s March state of the city address and the chamber’s general meeting.
Like many chamber personnel across the Eastside, Caldwell said hotel occupancy rates have seen a decline since the coronavirus outbreak, with catering and event-service companies suffering, too. Caldwell said that while the chamber’s primary focus is supporting local businesses, the organization is unsure how to impact consumer behavior safely.
Caldwell said that most businesses she’s heard from are most concerned about the unpredictability of the coronavirus, and when the period of economic precariousness will end. She noted some current ambiguities that the chamber is looking into, like additional relief efforts and untapped resources for businesses that could be beneficial.
But at this point, Caldwell said, it’s still too early to know quantitatively as of the Reporter’s deadline what trends are most consistent across the Bothell-Kenmore business community.
“I’m not sure what the answer is right now, but it’ll be important that we support our businesses moving forward,” Caldwell said, adding, “When you have a different issue, there’s relief efforts. You can see when we can start rebuilding, whereas the timeline [for this] is so uncertain.”
Joe Fain, CEO of the Bellevue chamber, said that the organization already had in place telecommuting protocols, which has been helpful for chamber staffers. But in the case of small businesses, Bellevue, like other communities on the Eastside, is seeing the service sector “getting really hit hard,” with venues, waitstaff and nonprofits who rely on fundraisers having a difficult time moving forward.
“Many of these organizations that are most impacted by a crisis like this often tend to be the ones that have the lowest margins and the least amount of cash in the bank to float them through a protracted downturn,” Fain said. “We expect to see some real damage to some of these organizations.”
Fain voiced an appreciation for state relief efforts and larger companies like Amazon and Microsoft, who have offered some relief to smaller businesses. But he noted the toll uncertainty can take.
“A lack of predictability can create the biggest harm for business,” Fain said. “It’s not always that something terrible happens, that people don’t know what’s going to happen. And if you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s hard to prepare.”
According to Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Kathy McCorry, grocery stores, markets and institutions like Costco are doing well as of the Reporter’s deadline. But Issaquah’s travel and tourism industry, as well as its food services, are taking “a hard hit” as a result of coronavirus concerns.
Prior to Inslee’s order for bars and restaurants to halt in-person dining, eateries on Front Street, for example, were seeing a “sharp decline” especially in walk-in customers, which had led the chamber to encourage business owners to pursue car-side and to-go options.
McCorry noted that food and clothing banks, as well as nonprofits like the Eastside Baby Corner, are having to grapple with a lack of volunteers, too.
“Everybody’s really trying to just take it day by day, and do the best they can,” she said, adding, “Individual businesses are working with their teams to do what they can, so that everybody stays as whole as possible.”
McCorry said that she and others are looking forward to hearing more about the status of new Small Business Administration (SBA) loan measures for local coronavirus-affected businesses. On March 6, President Donald Trump signed into law an $8 billion emergency funding package that would enhance funding for both SBA loans and lending programs to assist small businesses who have been affected amid the coronavirus pandemic.
McCorry and other chamber personnel will also be continuing to do “walkabouts” in Issaquah, during which a troupe of members visits 40-plus businesses around town to check in on what the needs and concerns of its owners are.
“We’re very much like everybody else,” McCorry said of the chamber. “Every day, we come in, we have a [meeting]. We look at what’s out there; we look at what we’re hearing and seeing and getting messages from members, trying to address those as they come up.”
“We are connecting the dots,” OneRedmond executive director Kristina Hudson said in an email.
According to Hudson, OneRedmond, which functions as the city’s chamber of commerce, the organization is receiving a significant number of calls and emails from business owners, nonprofits, government partners and citizens about their concerns amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“Small businesses that depend on those customers walking into their place of business are seeing an incredible and immediate negative impact to their bottom line,” Hudson said in an email. “These are our restaurants, fitness centers, day cares, athletic clubs and the like. Companies that depend on large gatherings and travel-related industries are also taking a huge hit…Our local nonprofits are also taking a significant hit.”
Hudson said that OneRedmond is trying to provide resources as federal help continues to be less certain. She said that the organization has business advisers who can assist businesses, free of charge, with tax concerns, legal problems and questions about employee and client safety amid the outbreak. For businesses and nonprofits, OneRedmond has developed an additional section of its website to highlight their needs and ways community members can contribute.
“Our mission is to connect commerce to community, in good times and most especially in hard times,” Hudson said in an email.
“We’re just kind of in limbo,” Kelly Coughlin, the executive director of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said.
While the chamber is holding off canceling events as of the Reporter’s deadline, Coughlin said, she’s nonetheless seen organization-related gatherings impacted: a luncheon in Issaquah on March 6, for instance, saw several absentees ostensibly because of coronavirus concerns.
But there has been a noticeable shift for Snoqualmie Valley’s business community. Coughlin said that the thing she most often hears is that people are simply not coming into local stores.
“And before that, they were having pretty good attendance,” Coughlin said of local businesses. “So it just seems that people are staying home.”
Business owners are also concerned about being able to hold on to their employees. At a recent meeting with local business owners, Coughlin said, many framed the state of the Snoqualmie Valley business community as doing well before the coronavirus outbreak.
“This just put a halt on everything — a complete halt,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin is encouraging people who can to continue shopping locally — and said the chamber is trying to help businesses implement options like curbside pickup and delivery when applicable. Some businesses, Coughlin said, are utilizing cleaning tools like ozone replacement to ensure that impurities are consistently taken out of stores. She reiterated how much more important the “shop local” mantra has become amid the crisis.
“We really need to support [shop owners],” she said, adding, “We don’t know how long this is going to last. It’s up to us — especially if you need things — to shop local…it’s our duty to make sure that people realize that it’s not just, if you don’t go shop local, it’s not just the stores. It’s the business owners; it’s their employees. There’s a lot that has to play, and these guys are losing their business.”